The Simple Life: The Pleasures and Rewards of Getting Back to Basics
(A Penguin Special)
e-Penguin (Australia), 2014
“I was pulled into simple living before I knew what it was. It crept up on me using the smallest of steps and didn’t reveal its true beauty and real power until I was totally hooked. I was searching for a way to live well while spending very little money. What I found was a way of life that also gave me independence, opportunity and freedom.” — Rhonda Hetzel, Back to Basics: A Guide to Simple Living
Skyler: “Walt . . . I want my life back. Please tell me . . . how much is enough? How big does this pile have to be?” — Breaking Bad, Season 5: “Gliding All Over”
After looking around for some books on the “small spaces” and “tiny home” movements, Amazon recommended this to me. I admit, what got me was the cover, the “Penguin e-Specials” emulating not only the theme but the covers of the old Penguin Special editions — short, quickie books devoted to burning issues of the day (one thinks of them as having titles like “Communism — Now or Soon?”). In this case it’s an emulation of the old blue Pelican covers, where they occasionally varied things with a blurry black and white photo of some vaguely relevant object stuck on — a pre-hipster kind of “clip art” — in this case, a chicken. And for .99, what’s not to like?
Sold on the cover, I was pleasantly surprised to find this to be short read packed with practical ideas and more than a little homespun philosophy.
Although the author refers to herself and her husband at one point as “aging hippies,” they seem far from what we would normally think of by that term. For one thing, they have been married over thirty years and raised two children; for another, her husband, Hanno, “has barely had a day without work since I met him thirty-eight years ago,“ mostly as a “diesel fitter.” (I have no idea what that is, but it sound harder than anything I’ve ever done.) She, for her part, had a thriving career writing technical manuals (a surprisingly common occupation, I find, for those who write about giving up “the Good Life;” cause or effect?) They may live on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, but these are no “dropouts” here.
But, as we’ve seen ever since the hippie reared his head in the ’60s, these “back to the land” types do tend, necessarily, to blend in together with those who never left the farm, differing only in, say, choice of drug.
In the event, Hetzel’s book does provide lots of useful information, and inspiring meditations, for those Counter-Currents readers, and Traditionalists in general, who say they want to disconnect from what Hetzel, and others, call “the consumerist lifestyle” — i.e., the modern, corporate world of sleep, work, consume. Even those who aren’t looking to disconnect will find useful advice on how to conduct one’s life anywhere.
I wanted to live in a different way, I wanted to leave the stress of “normal” life behind me, I wanted to slow down, be quieter and more in touch with my family and my natural surroundings. And while I did all that I wanted to open myself up to whatever my life would hold at this point. Whatever was out there I wanted to “know it by experience” as Thoreau would say.
Our way of life offers us the freedom to live alongside, but separate to, the minefield of materialism that has become a large part of today’s culture. We’re living on much less than we ever did in the past, yet we have more independence.
Granting that everyone’s idea may differ, Hetzel offer the definition of the simple life:
Slowing down to live a life that is focused on family, friends and home while voluntarily spending less, buying local food and products as much as possible, being more environmentally aware and becoming skilled enough ob self-reliant and partially self-sufficient. In my version of the simple life, work plays a large part and ‘enough’ really is enough.
There are four areas that are “crucial to living the simple life”:
- Personal Vision: question the “consumerist model of convenience, acquisition and debt.”
- Mindset and Contentment: “Instead of defining success in terms of money and possessions, your successes become more personal. . . . Work hard to get what you want out of life and be thankful when you have it.”
- Mindful Spending and Debt: “Work out what your level of ‘enough’ is.”
- Work and Skills: “Work will be a big part of this new life, and I can tell you that doing work in my home has empowered me and made me a different person.”
The interesting thing is that once you start to question the consumerist lifestyle, you find yourself, almost deductively, step by step, adopting a Traditionalist lifestyle, that is to say, traditional crafts in the home.
During a long period of unemployment a while back, I used to start my day’s watching Mario Batali’s Molto Mario cooking show. For some reason, it soothed me. As the days passed, I noticed that his occasional references to this or that principle, or characteristic, of Italian cooking (such as, that there is no “Italian” cooking but regional or even village, or grandma’s own, styles) could be reduced to a logical sequence. I entertained myself creating a sort of Tractatus Batali, in which everything — regional styles, local ingredients, freshness, simple preparation, etc. — could be logically deduced from one basic principle: Italy, as he said, had a culture of poverty.
By contrast, in the “consumerist” world, there is one global culture, in which everyone works to make lots of money, with which to buy the same expensive toys and time/labor/money-saving “conveniences.”
I was working six days a week . . . spending money just for the sake of it, operating on autopilot and not enjoying work or the tiny amount of leisure time I had. . . . I thought I was the epitome of independence and freedom, but after a while I began to feel unhappy and that I had no purpose in life.
Now, consider “poverty” as “living on much less than we ever did in the past” in order to “have more independence.” Once you realize that lots of money and gadgets do not “free” you but actually enslave you, everything else falls into place. You stop driving 2 hours on the freeways to get to The Office to work for someone else to make money to pay for the car, house, clothes, convenient food or dining out (no time!), and enough electronic toys to distract you from you empty life. That means you need to pay off the mortgage or find a way to live rent free, and work at home — mostly because “work” is now doing what you want to do, but also to make a little cash to buy — locally — what you don’t grow or make yourself.
And all that means learning — re-learning — the skills of our ancestors — not really mediaeval skills — this is not an Amish lifestyle (“alongside but separate to”), but the things our parents or grandparents still knew in the 1950s.
I wanted to return to the traditional style of housework that my mother and grandmother would have recognized, but do it in the context of 21st century reality and within a thrift framework.
In short, work — real work, not paper-shuffling for mega-corporations. Work that brings personal satisfaction, where pursuing your craft or making the bed.
The satisfaction and pleasure of growing my own [food] was much more important to me than the convenience of buying everything we ate.
A key element of work that Hetzel emphasizes, for practical reason, also has broader Traditionalist implications: the importance of routines.
It was only after a long period of trial and error that I stumbled onto a good routine that established a rhythm to my days. Since then I haven’t looked back.
When I made myself do my daily chore a little bit at a time, before too long I got into a rhythm that carried me through what I had to do.
I like doing my housekeeping now — it grounds me and reminds me every day that all the work both Hanno and I do helps create a how we love spending time in and fosters a relationship between us that grows stronger each year.
Two simple routines to start: making the bed, and setting the table. One routine — or ritual — for the start of the day, another for the end of the work day.
Give your bed the importance it deserves. After all, we’re usually born in one and we will probably die in one. The time you spend in bed sets you up for your active life.
On the other hand, setting the table is the perfect task for bringing children into productive family life:
Forget the idea that kids should be treated like visiting royalty.
Setting expectations for children to help when they’re young makes it easier for them when they’re older. And it can all start by placing knives, forks and glasses on a table every day.
Reflecting on routine, Hetzel notes that
Once I had found that rhythm, I started thinks about what I was doing, how my work connected me to my female ancestors, and how it made my life better.
The idea that housework involves, or promotes, thinking is another revolutionary (i.e., anti-consumerist) notion that Hetzel developed as she re-created her lifestyle. It’s naturally related to perhaps the most striking chapter, the third: “Homemaking: The Radical Choice.” which challenges what must be centuries by now of propaganda about how women are “enslaved” in the home and yearn to “break free” and have “real careers.” Consumerist society views homemaking as “mundane, monotonous and menial.”
I guess I listened to the common rhetoric about the work done at home and that it was unimportant, boring, and unrewarding. But I hadn’t thought about traditional homemaking. I hadn’t yet considered my own roots.
When I eventually settled into my change, I used a lot of the methods and routines that my mother and grandmother had used. They fitted into my new lifestyle so well that I consciously move towards a more traditional form of homemaking and modeled my methods on what I recollected of theirs.
This was the simple life I wanted. I didn’t want to stop working, I wanted to stop paid work so that I had time to work at home [and] generate quality.
“Quality,” that very Traditionalist value, is what homemaking generates.
Although it might look as though my days just repeat what happened the day before, it feels fresh every day.
I have the time to make the most of what we have. . . . Homemakers have to be multi-skilled. . . . A good home sets workers and students up for success, and that is good for the nation. There is no doubt about it, choosing homemaking as a career is a radical choice.
Good thing she’s writing from New Zealand; the language is becoming a little bit . . . National Socialistic. (See what I meant about hippies and old timers? Let’s see: defeat NS Germany, promote “feminism” in postwar society . . . sounds like Somebody might have an agenda.)
And like those earlier “radicals,” quality work leads to true freedom:
I still work for money but it’s at a much slower pace now and I control how much I do.
I’ll work all day or take frequent breaks; how much work I do on a particular day depends on how I feel. All these decisions are mine. I’m not told by a boss when to have morning tea or lunch, I can wear whatever I like and that pleases me to no end. . . .
We’re told that housekeepers don’t do much, that they have no power but in my opinion, the opposite is true.
Of course, there are some devils in the details here. Remember those 30 years of hard work? A good bit of that was devoted to debt reduction, leaving them debt-free; that has to be the first step of any escape plan, but in today’s economy, it may be more of a pipe-dream for most if they’re just starting out. And Hanno can now draw on New Zealand’s no doubt generous retirement scheme.
That said, Rhonda Hetzel writes a simple, friendly prose that makes her insights on the costs of the consumerist lifestyle and the value of what has been lost — and can perhaps be regained if we work at it — all the more impressive. Without any Traditionalist baggage, relying only on her own experience to see through the liberal/capitalist propaganda, she simply gets it. It’s a short and pleasant read that has — as I hope I’ve shown — plenty of practical advice and profound wisdom for anyone who wants out of the Modern World.
1. Or rather, a “cluck.” One of the pleasure of this book is learning, thanks to Kindle’s built-in dictionary, some Australian slang — in this case, “cluck” for chicken, and “doona” for duvet (“from Sk. ‘dun’ or down”). As we’ll see, both terms will be important.
2. Meet them here, thanks to Australian TV.
3. While Portlandia introduced itself with a faux-music video, The Dream of the 90s is alive in Portland,” already by the second season it became The Dream of the 1890s in alive in Portland” (“It’s a long way back/and this modern world has gone off the track”). See, more generally, “The Gilmore Girls Occupy Wall Street” in my collection The Homo and the Negro (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2012).
4. Or, perhaps, Heidegger. On Heidegger and ‘openness’ see Collin Cleary, “Heidegger: An Introduction for Anti-Modernists, Part Three,” here.
5. Typical “Italian-American” cooking is, by contrast, the result of immigrants crazed by sudden access to new and abundant ingredients, plus a heaping helping of misunderstood or commercialized ideas brought back by GIs; serves them right.
6. Doing his bit to maintain the culture of poverty, Batali later stole over $5 million in tips from his staff. Remember that when some fancy restaurant presents you with the check, or when some “libertarian” bloviates about how easy it is to live on the minimum wage. On the other hand, his business partner, Lidia Bastianich, has been accused of just going right ahead and enslaving immigrant workers to take care of her house — no housework for her! Both, of course, are big-time Leftist loudmouths.
7. “One should develop . . . daily ‘rituals’ or activities designed to orient one each day toward the world of one’s ancestors. It is important to do something on awakening, and just before bed . . .” Collin Cleary, “Knowing the Gods,” in Summoning the Gods (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2011), p. 20.
8. Myself, I’m counting on either a debt jubilee to calm down the masses, or a general collapse leaving all bets off.
9. For a similar blog from an American (retired to Hawaii) perspective, see Charles Hughes Smith’s of two minds,” which covers everything from the end of work and why GDP is a pernicious measure of economic heath, to how to make your own enchiladas.